Sermon: Ditching the Veil

Sunday, February 27, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Transfiguration Sunday
watch this service online (readings start around 21:32; sermon starts around 28:54)

Today we come to the end of the season of Epiphany.  Epiphany is a season that is all about revelation.  It’s a time in which we remember and celebrate the many radical and surprising ways that God chooses to show up in the world.  We began this season with a star – the star that led magi from the East to the infant Christ, the star whose light revealed to the world the birth of God made flesh.  And today we have this gospel story: the story of the transfiguration.  

There are actually two revelations of Christ in the reading that we have for today.  The first is the obvious one.  Jesus and a few of his disciples go up a mountain to pray and, as he’s praying, Jesus’ face and clothing suddenly start shining dazzlingly bright; Moses and Elijah show up to chat with him; and the disciples are struck speechless with awe and terror.  I think I’ve mentioned before that this is one of my favorite Peter moments in the gospels – this amazing thing is happening in front of him and Peter is like, “Tents!  We should put up tents so y’all can stay here!” – and even the gospel writer is like, “Yeah, he didn’t know what he was saying.”  It’s such an overwhelming experience that Peter is just trying to capture it and hold onto it in some way that he can make sense of.  

But the moment doesn’t last.  Moses and Elijah vanish; Jesus stops glowing; and he and his disciples head back down the hill.  And as they reach the bottom of the mountain, they walk into a scene of chaos.  A huge crowd is gathered there waiting for Jesus, and among them is a desperate father who shouts out, begging Jesus for help.  The other disciples were unable to cast out a demon that has been tormenting this man’s son and he is desperate for help. Jesus scolds his sheepish disciples; and then, full of confidence and power, he heals the boy and gives him back to his father.  And in that moment, Luke tells us, “All were astounded at the greatness of God.”  It’s another moment of revelation.

These two revelations actually echo our first reading for this morning, from Exodus.  Like Jesus, Moses goes up to the mountaintop, and there he sees God’s glory as he is given the ten commandments.  He then comes down the mountain with his face shining, still reflecting God’s glory.  In Moses’ story, however, the people at the bottom of the mountain are so freaked out by this revelation that Moses actually starts wearing a veil over his face any time he comes down among them.  Rather than letting his face shine, Moses hides the glory of God away.  

In contrast to Moses, with Jesus, there is no veil.  When Jesus comes back down the mountain, his light is still shining; he fully reveals God’s glory.  And he reveals it not through a glowing face or through dazzlingly white clothes; he reveals God’s glory through a glorious act of love.  Jesus shows the crowds gathered there a revelation of God’s awesome compassion and mercy and power to heal.  And to his disciples, Jesus reveals: You could do this too.  If you would root yourselves in God through prayer – instead of trying to do this on your own – you would be amazed at the wonders you could do.

There almost seems to be a parallel here between the disciples and Moses.  The disciples have seen God’s awesome power revealed in Christ – and at the beginning of this very chapter, Jesus even calls them together explicitly to give them “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases,” and sends them out “to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal.”  He sends them out to reveal God’s glory just as Jesus himself has done.  And yet here they are, still reluctant to ditch that veil and to let their light shine. 

Paul lifts up this same contrast between Jesus and Moses in our second reading for today.  The words Paul writes here could almost be directed at the disciples in our gospel reading.  He exhorts his readers: “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at [God’s glory].”  Paul reminds the Corinthians of the good news of hope they have received: that God has made a new covenant with God’s people, a promise of salvation and new life through the death and resurrection of Christ.  The transformative power of the Holy Spirit has been let loose on the world, working in and around and through God’s people to bring liberation and healing and life.  Christ has defeated death itself and raised us all up to share in that victory. 

In a nutshell, Paul is telling his readers: You have been set free from the fear of death and filled with the fire of the Holy Spirit.  Now go and live like it!

And Paul’s words still strike home for us.  We likewise inherit this same promise, this same hope, this same call.  We too have been set free from sin and death and empowered with the Holy Spirit.  Yet, like the first century Christians in Corinth, and like the first disciples of Jesus, we too sometimes struggle to go and live like it, to let our light truly shine.

It’s not that we don’t believe.  But it’s hard for us to let go of the fears and anxieties of this world and let ourselves fully lean on God.  We worry.  We worry about the future of our ministry when we see that our monthly giving fails to keep pace with our monthly budget. We worry when we see fewer people in church, and our hearts are grieved by those who have either died or wandered away from fellowship with us.  And we worry in these times of uncertainty and division and overwhelmingly rapid change, wondering what the future of our congregation will even be like, when the church as we know it keeps on changing.  

But Paul also reminds us that the future of the church is not in our hands.  It’s in God’s hands.  There is no strength or cleverness or sheer hard work of ours that can make our ministry succeed.  We carry out this ministry by God’s grace and mercy alone and, as Paul writes, “since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart.”  

In fact, we can take heart from our gospel reading.  Apart from Christ, the disciples who try to heal this demon-possessed boy on their own end up failing.  But with Christ in their midst, suddenly miraculous things begin to happen.  With Christ, all things are possible.  And we are the body of Christ!  Christ has promised to be with us always.  He is in us and among us, even now, empowering us to do extraordinary things, things we never believed we could do.  The same God whose glory shone out on the mountaintop fills our hearts with the fire of the Holy Spirit and sets us loose to do God’s transformative and healing work in the world.  

And so now is not the time for us to be timid and to veil our faces.  Now is the time to let our light shine.  Now is the time for us to root ourselves deeply in God through prayer, and to let God’s power and grace and love flow through us.  Now is the time to act boldly in love, trusting in God’s faithful provision and mercy to see us through.  

As the season of Epiphany comes to an end, I pray that God’s glory and goodness and love be revealed not just by a star or by a brief mountaintop encounter, but by each and every one of us, by our ministry together.  Let us boldly go forward wherever it is that God is leading us, our hearts full of faith and always ready to share the brightly burning love of Christ.

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